Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Curse of the Law (Deuteronomy 27-30)

The law concludes with a final exhortation to actually do the thing. The people are standing on the far side of the Jordan, and Moses tells them that when they enter the land that they will need to build an altar on top of Mt. Ebal. From there, they will call down curses on themselves, for those who do not keep the law.

I must confess, I do not often have the impulse to call down a curse on myself – though it isn’t an entirely foreign concept. It is a way of saying “I am so sincere in my commitment that I’ll gladly agree to horrible things happening to me if I break it.” It’s the language of covenant and law – and this element remains in our laws today. From rent agreements, to mortgage contracts, to international treaties, covenants invoke both blessings and curses.

But wow, some of these curses are absolutely chilling.
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.
Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.
Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock.
Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.
All the good things of life, all the day to day happiness and pleasures that come from work, from plans and ambitions, from family, from food, from health, from friendship – all these gifts that are the pursuit of humanity, God wants to give them in abundance. But their disobedience will land them with curses in every aspect of life.

It doesn’t stop here. No, they will suffer defeat and shame before their enemies, and be brought to pitiful ruin. Listen to this shocking description:
And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. …The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.
What a picture of complete degradation. The most precious and tender thing in life – the birth of a newborn child – is simply an occasion for bestial craving and utter selfishness. Try as I might, I could not picture a more loathsome state for a human being to be in. Those who have not loved their neighbors as their selves, will see the last vestige of self-love completely disappear.

The curse then ends with this picture:
In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.
How many times have the Israelites said, “we’d rather be slaves back in Egypt than this.” Well, in the end, they will be made so hideous, so completely pathetic, that the Egyptians sent to buy slaves will take one look at them and move on.

But Moses goes on to appeal to them that all this need not be. You can avoid this horrible curse, and instead enjoy the blessing of the law:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.
Here, as in the garden, man is given a choice between life and death. This time he is armed with the knowledge of good and evil. Will he finally do well?